The big question – to expand or to preserve?
Exciting Options in a World-Class Ski Town
By Kimberly Gabryszak
To be or not to be? That is the question. A lot of questions have been raised during discussions about plans for SkiLink—and a lot of debate has ensued. Mention “SkiLink” in the area and chances are that you’ll get an earful—and a passionate one, at that, either in opposition or in support of the proposed gondola transport between Canyons Resort in Summit County and Salt Lake County’s Solitude Resort in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
To its supporters, SkiLink represents a unique opportunity to provide skiers with fast, fun, and direct transport between top ski resorts, making Utah’s slopes an even more attractive ski destination, boosting the local economy, and decreasing road congestion and its consequences, namely air pollution.
The connection would distinguish Utah skiing from other U.S. destinations, making the Wasatch Mountain area more like many European destinations, where similar transport systems are popularly in place.
Its opponents, however, maintain that SkiLink would have a heavy environmental impact by the use of undeveloped land, negatively affecting wildlife, backcountry recreation, major biking trails, and
damaging sensitive local watersheds. In addition, opponents voice concern that SkiLink’s approval would only clear the way toward other unwelcomed resort development projects that would further threaten the local environment.
The SkiLink debate has spiraled beyond the local community, as well. Before developers can submit plans to local authorities, there must be legislative clearance for the sale of 30 acres of federal land needed to develop SkiLink’s gondola trail. Still pending in Congress, H.R. 3452 cites a number of anticipated benefits connected to the project, including associated annual revenues of $50 million, and an estimated 18,000 fewer cars on the road per year (with significant emissions reduction).
There is not unanimous legislative support for SkiLink, however. Also pending in Congress, H.R. 4267 proposes a “wilderness” designation of portions of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, an area that includes the proposed federal land sale. The bill’s stated intention is to maintain the character of existing wilderness, and by designating areas as wilderness, the legislation would place strict limits on any progress of SkiLink or other similar development proposals. The bill also proposes prohibitions on permanent roads and other sorts of new development, as well as the implementation of new restrictions, including the addition of conservation easements.
In an effort to further ensure the standards of environmental regulation and with respect to local concerns about environmental impact, SkiLink’s developers have proposed utilizing helicopters for construction to offset the need for heavy equipment that could cause disturbances, and have pledged to leave the construction zone unfenced to accommodate wildlife access.
In accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), developers have noted that the proposed project would not violate any environmental use law, as the property sought for development is not home to any federally protected species or habitats, and further, that since the proposed gondola trail does not include any exit stations or additional backcountry trails, SkiLink would not have any added impact of access along the line—backcountry skiers would still have to reach backtrail areas the old-fashioned way. The proposal also includes an easement along the property to retain continued local open access to the beloved Wasatch Crest Trail.
The conflicting legislation concerning SkiLink’s development has caused confusion about whether decisions at the federal level would circumvent local control, as many have understood that the proposed sale of federal land to SkiLink developers would automatically signify approval of the project, excluding local governance. If the sale of the federal land is approved, SkiLink’s developers must still apply to local authorities for approval of the project by way of local public review. Authorization of the land purchase would allow SkiLink’s developers to submit their complete development plans for local review as a first step, and one that would not guarantee the development’s ultimate approval by local ordinances.
If SkiLink’s developers are granted permission to purchase the land, the project will still face much scrutiny. For example, in the preliminary SkiLink proposal, the pathway of the gondola rail falls within Salt Lake County’s Foothills and Canyons Overlay Zone (FCOZ), meaning that any development plans must undergo special environmental impact review by the county for specific FCOZ compliance. This review would entail extensive impact studies and require that open public hearings be held for citizen input. Because of these and other regulations, SkiLink will be required to comply with a lengthy process of approval for a final go-ahead.
So how does one cut through the hubbub? How does one make sure that promises are met?
By staying involved and keeping track of the process. Only upon legislative approval of the sale of federal land can the local review process begin, and any subsequent local review would then result in a full, detailed disclosure of SkiLink’s plans, including information about construction design, size, operations, and economic data. Local approval of the proposal would alsoinclude clearly mandated conditions along the course of construction, such as compliance with certified planning stages and design specifications, to be met as guarantees by the developers.
As both bills H.R. 67 and 3452 continue to wait in Congress, SkiLink’s fate remains in limbo. Until either bill is passed (or not), the SkiLink Connection will remain at a discussion stage.